Five years ago Jansen Avenue was a shuttered elementary school hoping for a new purpose. On Friday, New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr. arrived at what is now a thriving and vibrant building, alive with brightly painted spaces, updated furniture, the latest in technology and an atmosphere crackling with excitement generated by curious high school students.
Since Fall of 2013, Jansen Avenue’s former library space has been home to Johnstown’s forward thinking program called “The Learning Project.” Led by Johnstown teachers Heather Buskirk and Anne Bagot, students in their senior year may elect to participate in a half-day curriculum centered on hands-on projects that require collaborative work, research, and problem solving, while incorporating multiple disciplines. These Johnstown students earn high school credits and, in some cases, physics credit from FMCC.
Over the summer of 2014 a new tenant arrived to occupy many additional rooms at Jansen Avenue. The HFM BOCES Pathways in Early College High School (PTECH) is providing high school students from districts across the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery region the opportunity to simultaneously earn a high school Regent’s diploma and an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science from Fulton Montgomery Community College, at no cost to their family. A new model for high school education, PTECH offers four career clusters in Business Management and Administration, Advanced Manufacturing (Clean Technology), Information Technology and Health Sciences.
Starting his visit in the Jansen Avenue Learning Commons, Commissioner King listened as students took turns sharing morning announcements that included scores from the games they had participated in the night before and personal accomplishments like bench-pressing a personal best, while receiving acknowledgement from their peers. The Commissioner then visited the repurposed classrooms, colorful, sophisticated, technology clusters filled with modern furnishings. At each work space he took time to engage with the students, who were more than happy to share the stories behind their activities and projects, and to provide a glimpse into their new educational experience.
At the end of the student-led tour, Dr. King offered time for a question and answer session. Students were eager to respond when he asked how this school is different from a traditional school setting. They talked about the lack of bells, which they said allows for a flow and keeps them from feeling rushed; the necessity of working in groups, rather than just for themselves; the technology-driven, paperless environment; and a sense of independence stemming from learning to manage their time in a less structured environment.
The students had questions for Dr. King as well. When asked how he chose his career path, Dr. King related that his childhood had been difficult due to the illness and death of his parents while he was young. School provided him with both an escape and a refuge, while the support of his teachers made a difference, keeping him focused and on the right path. Because of this, he said, he wanted to create an environment where kids could learn and feel supported, leading him to start his career as a high school social studies teacher. In true educator fashion, the Commissioner offered an impromptu history lesson for the students, telling them he had resided with his aunt and uncle, a former Tuskegee Airman, and checking to see whether they were familiar with what that meant.
In closing, when asked by a student what he thinks about the new programs at Jansen, Commissioner King replied that he supports project-based learning and would like to see more project-based learning opportunities become available. He also said he is looking forward to coming back to Jansen in a couple of years to see how the students have evolved!